An iconic 1993 cartoon published in the New Yorker summarized the appeal of the emerging online space: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The sketch captured the idea that real-world constraints would fall away, and participation in the new digital era was open to all, even the family pet.
Nearly 18 years after the cartoon’s publication, the Internet has become a part of everyday life for most Americans. However, the promise of liberation from personal identity has developed a caveat: You can be whoever you want, as long as you aren’t black.
At the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas (March 11-20), the intersection of online identity and racism was explored in a panel called “E-Race: Avatars, Anonymity and the Virtualization of Identity.” Jeff Yang, who writes the “Asian Pop” column for the San Francisco Chronicle, organized and opened the panel, remarking that we are at the dawn of a new era.
Racial identity is becoming more malleable than ever before, as mixed-race and minority populations are steadily increasing and changing the American demographic. At the same time, our online selves are becoming larger reflections of who we are in the real world — but why is that occurring? Yang asked Wagner James Au — an expert on the virtual avatar community Second Life, and the pioneer of digital racial studies — and Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to reflect on the changing nature of online racial identity.
The panel set out to explore a key theme: “What does the ability to hide or disguise identity mean in particular for the experience of race — and racism — online?” Counter to common assumptions, the ability to camouflage one’s race online doesn’t equal liberation from racism. In fact, since the default person online is assumed to be white and male, revealing yourself to be racially different often prompts other users to lash out.
Jenny McCarthy, Yes; Serena Williams, No
Au, the author of the blog New World Notes, said that in Second Life, “you can design your stereotypes from the bottom up.” Users select every part of their bodies — from hair, skin and eye color to lip shape and shade. However, with that selection comes a heavy serving of assumptions and stereotypes.
In 2006, Au documented the case of Erika Thereian, a Second Life user who normally presented herself as a blond “avatar hybrid of Jenny McCarthy and Pamela Anderson.” After a friend designing custom skins asked her to test-drive a new design, she switched over to a darker, Serena Williams-esque persona. Since Thereian often tested her friends’ designs, she was happy to try out her new look. But what happened next, she told New World Notes, was almost a “Black Like Me” moment: